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A tale of a city split into two

January 25, 2014 at 1:42 am

I was born in the border city of Rafah between Egypt and Palestine. Rafah has a story of human suffering that people ought to know about. It was once a single city, but has now become two; one is Egyptian, where I was born, and the other Palestinian, where I was raised. They are split apart by political borders, but the ties of blood and soul cannot be severed no matter how many years pass. 

People have never known but one Rafah, for the same families have lived on both sides. They lived on its land and were free to reside wherever they wanted; they married and built strong social bonds without the existence of boundaries as both Rafahs were under the rule of Egypt. Then, in the 1967 war, they were both occupied by Israel which is how Rafah stayed united.

However, once the Camp David agreement was signed between the Egyptian and Israeli regimes in 1979, it mandated that a barbed wire cut through Rafah and split it into two. This clause was put into effect on April 25th, 1982, when Mubarak’s reign began. Here is where one of the chapters of the continuous human suffering begins.

The barbed wire extended through houses, land, and property. It even split houses into two with one of the rooms in Egypt and the other in Palestine, as it did to Haj Abdulqader Al-Sha’aer’s house. Families were torn apart and displaced on either side of the border, placing a father in Egypt and his son in Palestine;  a brother here and his brother there; a mother here and her children there. Here is where politics proved how detached it is from all feeling and humanity.

Both the Israeli and Egyptian authorities released temporary access permits to the people of the two Rafahs in order for them to reach their belongings, land, and jobs on the other side of the city, but these permits were quickly revoked and any chance of communication between brothers, fathers, and sons was cut off. All that was left was the Rafah Crossing and its security complications and procedures that denied many from traveling through it.

Even when faced with conditions of extreme deprivation and suffering, the people of Rafah did not give up hope of finding ways to communicate. The only way of communication was through the barbed wire, so relatives stood on either side of the border and talked to each other from afar, separated by a strip of barbed wire, Occupation forces, and Egyptian soldiers.

Whenever someone died in either Rafah, they would use the microphones of one of the bordering mosques to inform the relatives of the deceased on the other side, and a funeral was held on both sides.

One of the worst scenes imprinted in my memory is that of when my cousin, Hajjah Fatima, died in the summer of 1993. She was married to her cousin, who lived in the Egyptian Rafah, while her mother lived in the Palestinian Rafah. She died at a time when the occupation forces had imposed a curfew on the Palestinian Rafah, in an effort to find and kill her younger brother. My old aunt had no other choice than to violate the curfew and go over to the barbed wire to get one last glimpse of her daughter’s coffin.

However, even such cruel means of communication did not sit well with the occupation forces, so when the Al-Aqsa Intifada of 2000 occurred, the occupation started demolishing a large number of houses near the Rafah border. This process of demolishing thousands of houses brought about the death of the American martyr, Rachel Corrie, who was killed defending the houses of the people of Rafah and whose fate was to be crushed by an Israeli bulldozer. Once the occupation had destroyed thousands of houses and turned the area close to the borders into a wasteland full of rubble, they built a steel cement wall, similar to that in the West Bank, which blocked the view of the Egyptian Rafah from its sister, the Palestinian Rafah, and communication, even in the slightest form, was impossible.

On September 12, 2005, the Israeli forces unilaterally disengagement from the Gaza Strip after a 38 year long occupation without coordinating with Egypt or the Palestinian Authority. This disengagement included the border line separating Egypt and Gaza, which allowed Palestinians to cross over the border for the first time since its existence. It was a chance for families to reunite after a long period of separation in which generations had died and new generations had been born hearing about relatives that lived just a few meters away, but whom they had never seen. It was a moment full of human emotion, tears, memories of mothers reuniting with their children and brothers reuniting after over 20 years of separation. However, this joy did not last long, as the Egyptian authorities quickly reclosed the borders, and the Palestinians were once again forced back into their prisons and families were separated once more.

Many events occurred in the next couple of years.  A strict blockade was imposed on the Gaza strip; all crossings linking Gaza to the outside world were closed, including the Rafah Crossing, controlled by the Egyptian authorities. No food, medicine, fuel, or building materials were allowed into Gaza, nor could any people go in or out. A year and a half into this blockade, after the blockade reached its peak by thrusting Gaza into a world of complete darkness, an explosion was set off near the Egyptian border, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed the border on January 22, 2008. It was a chance for the people of Rafah to reunite once again.

About a week after the border was opened, the Egyptian authorities closed it once again, but promised to reopen the Rafah Crossing. However, once they regained control of their border, they broke their promise, and the vicious cycle of blockade was upon Gaza once more. The Palestinians had no other way to survive but to dig through the ground and stone; hence the idea of the underground tunnels between the two Rafahs, in order to transport medicine, food, and fuel, was born. Here is where the social relationships between the people of both Rafahs became useful. A person digging a tunnel in the Palestinian Rafah would coordinate with a relative in the Egyptian Rafah and they would agree that the tunnel exit would be in his land or house. This idea really worked in helping to alleviate the suffocating blockade in the Gaza Strip by providing a way to bring all sorts of food, medicine, and supplies into Gaza.

Over time, the concept of the tunnels, which number over 400, developed and no longer only transported supplies, but transformed into a means of social communication between families on either side of the border. Some tunnels were dedicated to the transport people following structural improvements such as expansion, ventilation, and reinforcement. Although this means of transport is very risky, dangerous, and has led to the death of hundreds of Palestinians, it still remains the most popular and effective means of social communication between the two Rafahs, especially since travel through the Rafah Crossing has many political and procedural complications. With the presence of these tunnels, many families are able to attend the social occasions of their relatives on either side of Rafah. The tunnels are a momentous answer to geographic, historic, and human unification in Palestine following a separation caused by politics.

With the fall of the Mubarak regime, a new era has begun in Egypt. The people of Rafah had high hopes of reuniting the two sides of their city, however with the many issues concerning the Egyptian revolution; no time has been spared for this remote city.

Finally, after over 30 years of neglect, the story of Rafah’s division has made its way into the press in the form of a documentary on Al-Jazeera News Channel. Will this documentary bring this pressing humanitarian issue into the spotlight?

We are full of hope.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.